If it’s true that we all have a budgetary weakness, then mine is most certainly a love of fine dining. I can live in a shoe box, take public transportation rather than drive, and buy all my clothes on clearance at discount stores, but I just can’t seem to shake my love of good restaurants. But being a budget-conscious financial writer, I understand the potentially ruinous impact of paying full price regularly for fancy meals and devised cheaper means of experiencing the city’s best food. Here are a few of my favorites:
Lunch, not dinner
When most of us imagine fine dining, it conjures images of romantic dinners and moon-lit tables. But if it’s the food, itself, you’re after, going for lunch can afford you the same meal at a significant discount. Though most restaurants alter their menu somewhat for lunch, many core dinner items are still served (and for about 2/3 of what you’d pay at dinner). The easiest way to ensure you’re able to taste your preferred foods is to examine both the lunch & dinner menus online. By comparing these, you’ll spot which items are offered at both meals. As an example, I recently ate at a highly-rated, upscale Italian steakhouse and paid just $18.00 for a three-course prix fixe meal. That same salad, pasta and dessert would’ve cost me nearly $40 at dinner. A la carte fish, chicken and steak dishes were also about 30% cheaper than the same at dinner.
Cordon Bleu/Cooking Schools
The finest cooking schools (such as the famed Cordon Bleu) often have restaurants or dinner nights open to the public. When I lived in San Francisco, I frequently ate at the Cordon Bleu’s Technique Restaurant, enjoying gourmet five-course meals for about $15. These restaurants feature student chefs nearing graduation, and are overseen by professional chef instructors to ensure quality. The culinary creations of these same student chefs will likely fetch many times as much money once they graduate a few weeks later, so why not take advantage of their “student” status now?
Prix Fixe/Restaurant Weeks
Many fine dining restaurants offer prix-fixe and/or specialty weekly meals on slower nights. Dining out on say, a Monday night, can yield some significant savings; your best bet, again, is to check the restaurant’s website or inquire directly about such specials.
And in most major cities, upscale restaurants join forces to create a yearly “restaurant week” , enabling locals to sample their city’s fine dining offerings without breaking the bank. Spots get taken quickly, however, so you’ll need to make reservations well in advance – but the savings are usually on the order of 25-50%.
Appetizers & Dessert
One of our favorite hacks for enjoying the city’s best restaurants on a budget involves only ordering appetizers and dessert. We’ve discovered that in many cases, restaurants focus their greatest creative force on these courses, since entrees are usually somewhat more standard affairs. We’ll make a meal of pseudo-“tapas” and share two or three appetizers and a couple of desserts; this usually costs us about $40-50, including tax and tip, and we are able to sample some of the finest cooking in town. A full dinner at a five-star restaurant might have cost twice that.
Don’t buy alcohol
Just don’t. Period. This is where restuarants employ their biggest mark-ups — and where you will part with the most dollars uneccesarily. Focus on the food, and if you must, have drinks somewhere less expensive afterward.
Most foodies know of OpenTable.com as a uber-convenient way to secure reservations at the restaurant of your choice. But if you dine out often, consider signing up for their loyalty program; you get “points” toward a free meal with every reservation. Restaurants having a slow night may even offer several extra points, enabling you to accrue a free meal quite quickly.
Do you have any other hacks for fine dining on the cheap? Share them below!